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Mass. researchers get $10m in federal grants for brain research

WASHINGTON -- Massachusetts researchers were awarded about $10 million in federal grants to gain insight into the fundamental workings of our brain with its complicated network of cells and circuitry systems.

“This could transform how we study the brain with new technologies and enable researchers to develop new treatments and cures” for common neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which awarded the grants that were announced at a press briefing.

The agency provided a total of $46 million in funding to 58 research groups in 15 states for quirky and creative ideas like inventing a wearable PET imaging device to reveal how the brain functions when a person is jogging or eating a Big Mac; one team received a grant to develop a microelectrode that can deliver a tiny dose of drug to a single brain cell to see how it responds.

President Obama last year launched the massive research initiative called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies or BRAIN to help answer some basic questions like how the brain stores and retrieves memories and how various regions interact to guide our daily behaviors or shape our personalities. Like the Human Genome Project that Collins previously directed to map and understand all genes, this 12-year effort aims to determine exactly how the brain functions and malfunctions.

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In this fiscal year alone, four federal agencies, including the NIH and Food and Drug Administration, committed more than $110 million to provide basic research grants.

“We’re looking for a whole set of changes in the way neuroscience is done,” said Cornelia Bargmann, a brain researcher at Rockefeller University who served as co-chair of the NIH advisory group for the BRAIN initiative. “It can’t be business as usual. We need to share new technologies and get results out there as quickly as possible.”

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers received seven different grants totaling about $4.5 million. Biophysicist Alan Jasanoff received a grant to develop imaging agents for functional MRI imaging that would target the flow of calcium into and out of brain cells. Nerve cells signal each other through calcium fluctuations, and this system is thought to be disrupted in autism and other diseases like autism.

“We’re really looking for a direct measure of brain function, and right now we have mainly indirect measures” like using MRI to measure blood flow in the brain’s vascular system, said Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, referring to the MIT grant. The technique to measure calcium activity, Jasanoff said, could play an important role in determining how each brain region works and how these regions communicate with one another.

Mriganka Sur, an MIT neuroscientist, plans to use his research grant to determine the exact brain circuits involved in generating short-term memories that guide our decisions, like whether to purchase a 700-calorie Shake Shack milkshake or a bottle of water. “We will be building and using highly novel technologies to record electrical activity of thousands of brain cells in mice,” Sur said. Once the data is deciphered, his team will map out how neurons communicate with each other across brain regions. “We hope to eventually understand what the brain does as it performs cognitive tasks.”

Compared to other organs like the heart and liver, medical researchers have scant knowledge of how the far more complex brain actually works; they don’t fully understand, for example, how antidepressants work to lift mood or why stimulants like Ritalin calm hyperactivity. They also can’t explain why memory waxes and wanes in those with severe dementia, nor can they predict when these patients will have periods of lucidity, recognizing, for a moment or two, long forgotten loved ones.

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One goal of BRAIN is simply to identify all of the different types of brain cells, which still remain a mystery.

“We’re all incredibly humble” about this lack of knowledge, said Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institutes of Mental Health. Future discoveries will likely lead to insights that are “much more than anything we can imagine right now,” he added.


Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.